Women at BDO: A Discussion with Kathy Robertson

This article was originally published as part of a 2020 series profiling Women at BDO.

At BDO and the PPN Women's Group, we're committed to supporting our professional women and driving their success. From graduates to partners, we help women build relationships and create well-defined career paths through networking events, coaching, and professional development opportunities.

To give you an inside look at what it's like to be a woman in accounting – and at BDO – we conducted discussions with some of our most talented professionals. During the conversations, they discussed accounting and their experiences as women in business, from mentorship and gender-related roadblocks they've overcome to the importance of diversity in leadership.

Thanks for participating in this conversation. Let’s start off with an easy question. Tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m a partner in the audit division of the Melbourne office at BDO. I immigrated to Australia from America with my husband about 5 years ago. I've spent nearly 14 years in this profession and I’m passionate about embracing new technologies and work processes. My husband and I have 2 children. One is almost 3 and the other is 9 months old. Both girls are full of personality and bring joy to our lives every day. Outside of work I love to scuba dive and travel to new places with my family. 

What do you like most about your position? 

We are living in a transforming digital age. We are to the point now that as long as we have an internet connection, we can do our work. This gives me the flexibility to start my day soon after I drop the kids off, which is sometimes 7 am! This allows me to properly strategise my day and work with several hours of focus before the rest of the office shows up or when I need to be at a client site. You’ll often find me working in a café near my client in the early hours before they arrive for the traditional workday. I also have the flexibility of spending time with my kids during the dinner/bedtime routine, so I may leave work at 4 pm to enjoy our evening family rituals and have the capacity to log back on after the kids go to bed if required.

I also love the diversity of our team and clients. Our Melbourne audit team consists of about 60 team members. The 6 partners that lead the division are from all walks of life, only 2 being originally from Australia. I love that this brings different perspectives to our work and helps us solve client problems. Our client base sits primarily in the large/listed space, which often includes international operations. I find myself coordinating work with teams in countries all over the world and this has offered me the ability to travel internationally and domestically. I love that I get to work on some technical issues with clients, but also get the opportunity to mentor junior staff and watch them develop into well-rounded professionals. This balance poses new challenges every day and makes my job interesting.

Have you ever felt like you had to overcome any gender-related roadblocks in your career (big or small)?

Men and Women both have to face challenges in balancing work and family life. I believe working women face greater pressure when they take that step into motherhood, both socially and professionally. I feel that society expects women to work as if they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work. After giving birth to my second child and taking 7 months of maternity leave, I returned to work on a full-time basis. I had someone ask me whether my daughter had forgiven me for going back to work. I’ve had other people say that 7 months was not enough time to spend with a newborn. And I had someone tell me that we would lose a key client because I was going on maternity leave. I have people ask me all the time who is looking after the children while I’m at work. On the surface, these comments might seem harmless, but the cumulative messages can cause damage and put pressure on mothers. Now, I’m not justifying those comments, but I’m not surprised with the amount I’m hearing because studies in 2018 from the National Bureau of Economic Research show that less than 20% of people in the US, UK and progressive Scandinavian countries think that women should work full-time when they have young children. 

Mum-guilt is a real thing. Mothers constantly worry about their children, whether they are making the right decision, whether they will be cared for, that their kids will grow up to be well-rounded adults, etc. etc. There seems to be a double standard because I don’t think men are explaining who’s watching their children or defending their decision to return from work after parental leave. The mental load mothers carry on their return to work makes the transition that much harder. The side comments serve more as a distraction from her work and chip away at a woman’s confidence in her parenting skills. This is also the point in time where the gender pay gap seems to widen because women are more hesitant to take on more projects, travel out of town, or work long hours because they generally spend 9 hours more per week in household responsibilities than their male partners and they simply don’t have any extra time for work.

I find solace in the fact that studies from the Harvard Business Journal show that daughters who grow up with a working mother consistently perform higher in jobs of their own and have higher earning potential than those who have stay at home mums. And sons who grow up in a home with a working mother are more likely to share household responsibilities with their partners as adults.

We have women setting great examples – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, took 6 weeks of leave before returning to work and took her 3-month old baby to a UN conference in New York.

Iceland passed a law in 1981 for 3 months of maternity leave. This was extended to 6 months in 1988. These laws reinforced cultural norms that mothers are responsible for raising young children. In 2000, Iceland changed the law to maternity/paternity leave and is a use it or lose it policy. About 90% of fathers take the leave and employers have come to expect that young adults (men or women) will be taking extended leave when they decide to start a family. This also gives women more opportunity to balance the scales because men would be on leave. The current gender pay gap in Iceland is about .91 cents to every $1, much better than the .82 cents in Australia and America.

Until we think of both men and women as both caregivers and breadwinners, the gender pay gap and social pressures will continue to be an issue. Women have every right to be mothers without being penalised at work. We also need to be supportive of a family’s decision for the mother to work, not work, breastfeed, bottle-feed, sleep train, or whatever they choose to do. It’s not up to someone else to determine whether 7 months is too much or not enough. We are doing what was right for our family and it doesn’t mean we love our kids any less. So instead of passing judgement through seemingly harmless questions, I urge everyone to say something nice and encouraging instead.

​ How do you manage those types of situations? 

Any new mother who is trying to breastfeed can relate to the constant worry: is my baby getting enough, will my body produce enough milk, what if my baby doesn’t take a bottle, what if they start to lose weight and the maternal child health nurse casts judgement on your mothering abilities, the list goes on and on. I’m lucky to work at a firm that recognises the value that working mothers continue to bring and has some added benefits to support them. BDO maintains breastfeeding policies whereby they will pay for a mother to take lactation breaks (up to 30 minutes) and provide access to a private wellness room which includes a fridge to store breastmilk. I’m happy that I could breastfeed my firstborn for 16 months and I haven’t stopped yet with my second baby. That bond that develops during breastfeeding is something I value deeply and I’m glad BDO has made some accommodations for me to achieve that goal. 

In addition, BDO has provided me with external support from Grace Papers. This program included online digital resources but also, and more importantly, one-on-one coaching during my pregnancy, maternity leave and return into the workplace. This gave me the forum to freely express my uncertainty over this significant life change and receive the much needed support and encouragement. I piloted the Grace Papers program during my first pregnancy and loved it so much that our firm has used these experts for other mothers and I continued to use them during my second pregnancy and return to work transition.

Whilst I was on maternity leave for the second time, I came to learn about ‘Keeping in Touch’ plans (through the advice and coaching of Grace Papers). The KIT plans allow for women to still maintain their federal entitlements of maternity leave whilst allowing them to remain connected to their workplace and help them transition back into work. Employees on unpaid parental leave are entitled to receive up to ten (10) keeping in touch days. I crafted my own plan prior to the birth of my second baby and worked closely with my Partner in Charge to ensure it aligned with our strategy and my personal development goals. This certainly made a huge impact on my return and helped me to gradually transition back without a great deal of stress.

I was also happy that my promotion to partner of BDO was decided and announced whilst I was on maternity leave. The level of support I received from the partner group and senior executives of the Firm was encouraging.

Thank you to Kathy for her time, and for letting us get to know a little bit more about her career so far!